NASCAR Shifts Gears In Drive Toward Diversity
Here's what I learned during my weekend at NASCAR.
If “NASCAR” and "diversity" sound like an oxymoron to you, it’s not without reason. A 2014 Nielsen report published in The Atlantic shows that NASCAR's viewership skews 94 percent white and 63 percent male, giving NASCAR the least racially diverse television viewership of all major sports. As the country continues to become more and more diverse, NASCAR is working to do the same.
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When you take the sport's history into consideration, this homogeneity makes perfect sense. Conceived during the Prohibition era by “good ol' boy” bootleggers from down south, NASCAR's success is greatly owing to the rebellious, southern, outlaw culture that created it. While there is nothing inherently problematic about nurturing a devoted niche audience, in this case, that culture just happens to run adjacent to traditions of racism and bigotry. This has made for a challenging pivot as the organization looks to appeal to broader audiences. It also amplifies the significance of Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr.'s placement as NASCAR's first black Cup Series driver in more than a decade, a point I thought it vital to highlight in a recent write-up covering the drivers run.
In response to that post, I was invited by a representative from NASCAR to come out and experience a race for myself to get a first-hand look at the strides that the organization is making in diversity and inclusion. I accepted that offer and spent the first weekend of August at New York's Watkins Glen International track getting a behind-the-scenes view of a NASCAR race. While there, I had the chance to speak with diverse personnel at every level of the organization, and take a peak at the adjacent NASCAR fan tailgate.
Here's what I learned from my experience at a NASCAR event.
1. Diversity Recruitment is Priority
There is a bona fide effort to bring demographic balance to NASCAR through focused HBCU recruitment. This summer, through the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program, the organization placed 28 interns, from black colleges, across several departments within NASCAR's wide network. Touring Series Senior Director and Clark Atlanta University grad, Brandon Thompson came through the Diversity Internship program, and is a testament of its success. "The thing about NASCAR that I quickly learned is that if you do a good job and work hard, it's a relatively small organization so word spreads fast," he said. "I tell incoming interns all the time that the opportunity is what you make it."
2. NASCAR Drives for Diversity at Every Level of the Organization
The NASCAR Drive for Diversity program is the leading development program for minority drivers and pit crew members, and Rev Racing CEO, Max Siegel, is a driving force behind its success. NASCAR partners with Rev Racing to provide rigorous training for aspiring minority drivers and pit crew athletes. "Churning out drivers, winning championships and placing pit crew members has given us incredible leverage in the industry," he said. That cache has created careers, livelihoods and opportunities for diverse young talented individuals to pursue their dreams.
2015 Mexico Series champion, Ruben Garcia Jr., is a product of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program and a lifelong racing enthusiast. "I started with my dad when he was a driver here in Mexico," Garcia said. "He drove some Formula cars, trucks and touring cars, so I was going with him to the race track at three-years-old." By the time he turned five-years-old, Garcia was racing go-carts, and by the age of seven he had graduated to practicing in small touring cars. A racing veteran by the age of 21, Garcia credits NASCAR's diversity program with opening a whole new world of opportunity. "It gave me the chance to build my career and start racing outside of my country," he said.
3. Crew Love Is Real
Pit crew members are the unsung heroes of the game. These crews of super fit, agile, skilled athletes train five days per week to prepare for race day, where they change tires, fuel cars and lug equipment at lightening speed. Watching the pit crew do their thing is an event within itself.
The organization has made concerted efforts to recruit crew members from former minority college athletes. Richie Williams is one of dozens of ex-collegiate athletes turned pit crew members who have come up through the Drive for Diversity program. The former national championship winning Appalachian State quarterback transitioned into NASCAR with ease. "It wasn't a hard transition. Once you get to know the guys, and the guys get to know you, then it's just like any other team," he said. "It has formed into a family atmosphere, just like it was in football."
4. Diverse Interns Get Job Offers
Recruiting diverse summer interns is one thing, but converting those interns into hires is another. The NASCAR Diversity Internship Program does both, providing a real pipeline for diverse talent into the organization. Dawn Harris, NASCAR's Director of Multicultural Development, has witnessed the program's impact. "I have seen it grow and expand and gain real traction," she said. "The program has made a strong footprint within the industry."
5. Fan Base Diversity is Lacking
While NASCAR has made great strides in recruiting diverse talent into the organization, there is a disconnect when it comes to attracting a more diverse fan base to the sport. Harris, who has been with the organization since 2007, believes that this is due largely to negative misconceptions. "I think a lot of times people have a certain perception of what the NASCAR experience is, or what fans or employees or stakeholders are like," she said. "Unless you actually attend a race or an event, that myth won't be debunked."
Siegel contends that cultivating multicultural drivers will do a great deal to close the diversity gap in viewership. "What we've found from a qualitative standpoint is that perception is the biggest barrier of entry for new fans," said Siegel. "That can be overcome with the right diverse players." If other sports are any indication, Siegel is absolutely right. When you consider the impact that Tiger Woods had on expanding viewership for the sport of golf, and the Williams' sisters continued ability to bring more diverse audiences to tennis, it's clear that dynamic diverse athletes have a way of galvanizing fan bases organically. The Drive for Diversity program is grooming diverse stars to do just that for NASCAR.
6. NASCAR Wins Big With Women
The sport wins big with one minority fan base.
Of all major sports NASCAR has the highest share of women as fans. While the bulk of this 37 percent female viewership is white, there are diverse women occupying roles throughout the organization. Puerto Rico born, Alba Colon, is one of them. An industry legend, the Program Manager for General Motors/Monster Energy NASCAR has been working with the NASCAR organization since 1994. While Colon lives and breathes NASCAR, she is forthright about the challenges she's faced as a woman, and a person of color. "It wasn't only being Hispanic, it was also being a woman and a female engineer, because there weren't too many of us," she said. "So there were three roadblocks that I had to go through, but I didn't even think about it at that time." Colon believes that hard work and perseverance are key to overcoming barriers. "You have to have the attitude that 'I'm not going to give up and I'm going to continue working hard,'" she said. "Things have changed so much. [NASCAR] is a great place to be."
7. Embracing Diversity is Complicated
In efforts to gain new audiences, the organization may risk forfeiting a loyal old one. After controversial actions like distancing itself from the Donald Trump brand and asking fans not to display the Confederate Flag at racetracks, NASCAR has ruffled quite a few feathers among its core. According to the Wall Street Journal, since the sport's glory days in the early 2000's, viewership has taken a 45 percent dip. Although rapidly evolving demographics make a clear business case for diversity across all industries, it may take some time for NASCAR to reach critical mass.
Can NASCAR Successfully Shift Gears Toward Diversity? When it comes to diversity, NASCAR's initiatives are real. With experience in HR and Recruitment, I recognize the difference between rhetoric and real actionable programs that lead to results. Lots of businesses visit HBCUs, HCIs and attend Diversity Career Fairs to demonstrate a good faith effort, but NASCAR is truly about that diversity life.
What is the Culture Around NASCAR Really Like? The fan tailgate is, in my opinion, the most authentic snapshot of the true culture of a sport, which is why I thought it important to leave the back office and roam alone at an actual fan tailgate. What I found is that a NASCAR tailgate is not unlike a tailgate at other sporting events. There's the lighthearted fun of little kids running around dressed as miniature NASCAR drivers, super intense cornhole competitions and the smoky aroma of tailgate food. Folks come out to enjoy themselves and have a good time. The major difference at this event was the lack of diversity. Unsurprisingly, I stood out in stark contrast from everyone else and amidst the casual festivities was a generous sprinkling of Confederate t-shirts, "Make America Great Again" hats and the occasional intense prolonged glare in my direction. Without my press pass and official NASCAR entourage, I found the clichés surrounding NASCAR culture on the real, authentic, fan level, to be somewhat valid—which is fine.
Every sport has a culture and NASCAR is no exception. Would I feel comfortable attending an event on my own? No. Is the NASCAR organization working to change that answer for people who look like me? Absolutely. It won't happen overnight, but when it comes to courting diversity, NASCAR is off to a respectable start.